Inequality and American Social Policy Attitudes

Other External Scholars:
Clem Brooks, Indiana University
Project Date:
Nov 2007
Award Amount:
Project Programs:
Social, Political, and Economic Inequality

The success of the campaign to repeal the U.S. inheritance tax is often attributed to clever framing. By calling it a “death tax” instead of an “estate tax,” advocates of repeal implied that the tax was levied on everyone – when in fact only 1.3 percent of the richest estates were subject to the tax. Similar framing tactics might account for some of the apparent inconsistencies in American political attitudes about inequality and redistribution. Political scientists Jeff Manza and Clem Brooks recently conducted two national surveys to test the strength of framing effects across a variety of public policy issues. With support from the Foundation, the investigators will now analyze and publish the results of this project.


Manza and Brooks’ surveys contain embedded experiments that probe attitudes on redistributive social policies, national security, and race relations. The use of three topics allows for benchmarks against which to judge the strength of framing effects on attitudes toward redistributive policy in particular. Manza and Brooks introduced several innovations in their experimental design that will help clarify how framing really operates in the public sphere. Instead of testing only one frame at a time, they embedded two frames within a single question, a structure that more closely approximates the ordinary rough and tumble of political discourse, where efforts to frame are inevitably contested. The investigators will also test the relative strength of framing against “sponsorship effects” – essentially, the issue of who is doing the framing. For example, the researchers believe that when policies are endorsed by groups or leaders perceived as “liberal,” Americans – who are increasingly unlikely to identify themselves as liberal - may be less likely to support those policies. Popular distrust of liberals might help explain why the public has not rallied around calls for more extensive redistribution at a time of such alarming economic inequality. Manza and Brooks will report their results in a series of technical journals and, subsequently, in a book designed for the general public.


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